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Workhouse jfk and docklands tours

Thursday, 20th June, 2013 1:00am

Aside from the summer city walking tours running at the moment, I have two suburb walking tours coming up across the next week. Next Saturday morning, 22 June at noon in association with the summer garden fete of the Friends of St Finbarr's Hospital, I will conduct a historical walking tour of St Finbarr's Hospital with special reference to its workhouse and great famine history (meet at gate, free, as part of my community work in the south-east ward).

The second tour is the following Friday evening, 28 June at 7pm and will take in Cork docklands. It is free and the meeting point is at Kennedy Park, Victoria Road. Special focus will be given on marking the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy coming to Cork and getting freeman of the City on 28 June 1963. He left Cork by helicopter from the park now named after him. The tour will also take in Albert Road/ Jewtown/ Hibernian Buildings and the city's docks.

On St Finbarr's Hospital, I have always admired the view from the entrance gate onto the rolling topography extending to beyond the southern boundaries of the city. Here also is the intersection of the built heritage of Turners Cross, Ballinlough and Douglas.

These are Cork's self sufficient, confident and settled suburbs, which encompass former traditions of market gardening to Victorian and Edwardian housing on the Douglas Road. Then there is the free state private housing by the Bradley Brothers such as in Ballinlough and Cork Corporation's social housing developments, designed by Daniel Levie, on Capwell Road. Douglas Road as a routeway has seen many changes over the centuries from being a rough trackway probably to begin, with to the gauntlet it has become today during the work and school start and finish hours.

With mid nineteenth century roots, the hospital was the site of the city's former workhouse but as such, here is one of Cork's and Ireland's national historic markers. Written in depth over the years by scholars such as Sr M Emmanuel Browne and Colman O'Mahony, many in-depth primary documents have survived to outline the history of the hospital. What shines out are the memories of how people have struggled at this site since its creation in 1841. Other topics perhaps can also be pursued here such as the history of social justice at the site, why and how society takes care of the vulnerable in society and the framing of questions on ideas of giving humanity and dignity to people and how they have evolved over the centuries.

The hospital serves as a vast repository of memories, symbolism, iconography and cultural debate. Standing at the former workhouse buildings, which opened in December 1841, there is much to think about - humanity and the human experience.

The architect to the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland from 1839 until 1855 was George Wilkinson. Nearly all the workhouses, accommodating between 200 and 2,000 persons apiece, were designed in a Tudor domestic idiom, with picturesque gabled entrance buildings which contracted the size and comfortlessness of the institutions which lay behind them. By April 1847 all 130 workhouses were complete, the Douglas Road one being one of the first.

With its association with the memory of the Great Famine, there are also many threads of the history of the hospital to interweave - the political, economic and social framework of Ireland at that time plus the on the ground reality of life in the early 1800s - family, cultural contexts, individual portraits. In the present day history books in school, the reader is drawn to very traumatic terms. The recurring visions comprise human destruction, trauma, devastation, loss. One can see why the Great Famine is more on the forgetting list than on the remembering one.

At the same time as the development of the workhouse on Douglas Road was struggling, the city continued to extend its docks area. In the late 1800s, the port of Cork was the leading commercial port of Ireland. The export of pickled pork, bacon, butter, corn, porter, and spirits was considerable. The manufactures of the city were brewing, distilling and coach-building, which were all carried on extensively.

I'm a big fan of the different shapes of these wharfs, especially the timber ones that have survived since the 1870s. A myriad of timbers still prop up the wharves in our modern port area, protecting the city from the ebb and flow of the tide and also the river's erosive qualities. The mixture of styles of buildings etch themselves into the skyline, add in the tales of ships over the centuries connecting Cork to other places and a community of dockers, and one gets a site which has always looked in a sense beyond its horizons.

Indeed, perhaps the theme that runs through the docklands walking tour is about connections and explores sites such as Jewtown, the National Sculpture Factory, the docks, the old Park Racecourse, and the early story of Fords. All these topics are all about connecting the city to wider themes of exportation and importation of goods, people and ideas into the city through the ages. I hope to have a page on John F Kennedy's visit to Cork in 1963 next week.

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